Marco’s story – How a cold and sore throat actually turned out to be cancer

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Marco embraced the opportunity to support his wife in her career when they moved to the UK from Chicago in 2017. The plan was for Marco to take a career break and then find a new position but after being diagnosed with tonsil cancer, his search for work was put on hold.

Marco is 56 years old and lives in Hampshire with his wife and their 15-year-old daughter. He enjoys cooking fresh food from scratch, hiking and trying out new recipes for his family and friends.

Marco told us “In January 2021, I was suffering with a cold and persistent sore throat. I could see that my tonsils were inflamed but thought nothing of it. I only contacted my doctor after discovering a hard lump on the side of my neck.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions I had a telephone consultation with my GP and sent him a photo of the back of my throat. He thought it looked serious so immediately referred me for an MRI scan and a biopsy. Unfortunately, this resulted in a diagnosis of tonsil cancer. It was a complete shock to me and my family, we’d come to the UK to follow our dreams and cancer was never part of our plan.”

Tonsil cancer is often diagnosed late in the disease, when cancer has spread to nearby areas, such as the lymph nodes in the neck. That’s why it’s important to get checked out early if you experience, difficulty swallowing, swelling or pain in the neck or throat, earache or jaw stiffness.

Marco said “I was relieved that my private medical insurance meant I could choose my clinician and where I would be treated. I learned of 3 head and neck oncologists and thoroughly researched each of them making my decision based on three factors; clinician speciality, clinician’s seniority within the speciality and location of the centre where they provided treatment. I chose leading expert Dr Nicola Dallas, Consultant Oncologist at GenesisCare in Windsor as she was the best fit for me. Dr Dallas has a specialist interest in head and neck cancers and the latest treatment developments. She has years of experience and is held in high regard, being the clinical governance lead for the Berkshire Cancer centre and is also responsible for overseeing specialist oncology trainees. This made me feel that I’d be in safe hands.

At my initial consultation, Dr Dallas explained the treatment options available to me. We discussed chemoradiotherapy and the potential benefits of having surgery before possible chemoradiotherapy.

Dr Dallas recommended that I see one of her colleagues, Professor Stuart Winter as he is an esteemed head and neck surgeon who practices in Oxford, and he is part of the same multidisciplinary team (MDT) as Dr Dallas. This provided a seamless pathway between surgery and my subsequent treatments and therefore I was extremely happy to take Dr Dallas’ recommendation. It really made sure that everyone in the MDT knew my history and was able to collaborate efficiently and effectively.”

Professor Winter said “It is crucial that when someone is diagnosed with tonsil cancer that they have a streamlined approach to their investigations and treatment plan. The ability to have a range of experts within GenesisCare means that there is no delay in getting the correct scans, biopsies and having the appropriate team members able to make decisions about care.”

Marco continued “Six weeks after surgery I started a course of radiotherapy and chemotherapy which were administered simultaneously at GenesisCare in Windsor. I was given chemotherapy once a week and received radiotherapy every weekday for 6 weeks. As I was travelling back and forth from my home in the Hampshire, and also dealing with my family commitments, it was extremely helpful that I was able to pick appointment days and times that worked well for me and my family.  The team at GenesisCare were also so supportive and went out of their way to ensure I got the very best care possible.”

Dr Dallas explained “Marco received volumetric modulated arc therapy (VMAT), a type of advanced radiotherapy where the beams are shaped to fit the target area. It’s a very precise treatment delivered as the machine moves around the body in an arc concentrating the radiation on the tumour. This means we can deliver the treatment dose with increased accuracy, whilst reducing the impact on surrounding healthy tissue. During his radiotherapy sessions, Marco wore a state-of-the-art custom-made mask which fitted closely over his head and shoulders, keeping him in the right position throughout and improving treatment accuracy.”

Marco continued “Throughout my treatment I wanted to be kept informed about how I was shaping up. I always felt that this would ensure I was able to feel in control. The team told me at every step of the way how I was responding and whether I was on track to reach the expected milestones. The clinicians made me feel like they were my own personal team, we were there to do a job together and I felt very much part of the process. My business background, working as part of a high-pressure team helped me to look at it from this perspective and this way of thinking had a positive impact for me.”

The facilities and services available at GenesisCare go way beyond just the chemo and radiotherapy and I made sure I took full advantage of their integrative cancer care approach, which provides complementary treatments that support the whole patient, not just their cancer. They provide reflexology and acupuncture, in their centre, through their partnership with Penny Brohn UK which I found to be extremely beneficial as it helped me relax and relieved tension. They also have an on-site gym and I was given a personalised exercise medicine programme which played an important part in my mental and physical health. I believe that this comprehensive approach significantly contributed to my overall wellbeing and recovery.

Commenting on Marco’s treatment, Dr Nicola Dallas said “Marco received an intensive course of treatment; surgery quickly followed by radiotherapy and chemotherapy. This has been given with curative intent, and his post-treatment scan shows an excellent response to treatment at this stage. Marco’s ability to engage with all members of the multidisciplinary team has enabled him to optimise what is undoubtedly an extremely challenging treatment journey. He has benefitted fully from the additional services available to GenesisCare patients; the exercise clinic and complementary therapies and has already achieved an excellent functional outcome following treatment.”

Marco will continue to have regular appointments with his consultant to monitor his progress.

Marco says of his experience, “The energy of the staff at GenesisCare is exhilarating. Everyone was fantastic and I would describe going there as my happy place. To me, ’cancer’ is no longer a gloomy process or negative word, it’s just cancer. The attitude of the GenesisCare team is always positive and upbeat and I felt like part of the team and that we were all in it together.”